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Primer on Gas Discharges

(Plasmas)
Introduction
In the early and middle years of the twentieth century, electrical engineers were interested
in using the nonlinear properties of electric plasma in circuits containing gas tubes to
regulate currents and voltages in often quite clever ways 1 . After the advent of solid-state
devices, however, the importance of gas tube technology dropped to almost zero. There
are still Geiger counters and certain other specialized devices being produced and used,
but the overall properties of electric discharges in gases (plasmas) has almost become a
lost art of historical interest only except among those still seeking the elusive
continuous fusion reaction and the proponents of the Electric Universe.
So a main motivation for this article is that information on electrical discharges is not
easy to find in current literature (in spite of its growing potential importance in many
fields of physics, astrophysics, atmospheric electricity, and engineering). The McGrawHill Encyclopedia of Physics has no entry for electrical discharge or electric arc, for
example. The closest one can come at present are articles and books on plasma physics,
which are almost exclusively mathematical and which contain little or no description of
laboratory procedures or observations2.
Searching the Internet for descriptions of what constitutes a glow-mode plasma discharge
yields very little information other than where to purchase certain devices that have
nonlinear volt-ampere characteristics of one sort or another. What follows is a brief
tutorial explanation of the inherent physical properties of a low-pressure gas when
excited by an electrical current.
We first will discuss what a plasma discharge looks like in the laboratory. What do we
see when we set up a typical experiment to observe a plasmas physical structure?
As the second part of this primer we discuss the discharges electrical properties and
attempt to show a relationship between these electrical measurements and what we have
observed earlier about the plasmas appearance.
The third and final part of this paper will attempt to relate our laboratory observations of
part one, the measured electrical properties of part two, and what at least this author
suspects is occurring on and around the Sun.

1. Visual Appearance of the Static Plasma Discharge


In the laboratory, applying a potential (voltage) difference between two electrodes placed
inside a low-pressure gas can produce the phenomenon known as a plasma discharge.
Electrons originating at the cathode and positive ions near the anode will be accelerated
in opposite directions, collide, and transfer energy. J.H.W. Geissler 3 performed the first
known experiment of this kind in the early 1850s. He was a glassblower by trade and
quickly made his Geissler tubes into sought after art objects. Later (1869-1875) Wm.
Crookes4 developed his Crookes Tube which is sometimes erroneously credited as being
the first plasma containing device. Actually the Crookes tube requires a heated

(thermionic) cathode to produce electrons, which are its exclusive charge carriers
whereas in a Geissler tube both ions and electrons (a true plasma) are charge carriers.
Figure 1 shows the basic physical structure of a discharge. All of the component
structures shown there are not always found in any given discharge, but depending on
pressures, voltages, and dimensions, all have been observed in one discharge or another.
There is a well-known relationship, called Paschens Law, between the separation
distance between electrodes, the pressure, and the applied voltage that must be met in
order to initiate the discharge. Changes in any of those variables, or the type of gas used
in the tube, will alter the appearance of the discharge.
Once the requirements of initiating a discharge have been met, a pair of electrons will
enter into the discharge from the cathode. One is accelerated toward the anode and one
recombines with an approaching +ion. Near the anode the incoming electron will ionize

Anode
Glow

Faraday
Dark
Space

Positive
Column

Negative Aston
Glow
Dark
Space

Cathode -

Anode +

E-Field (V/m)

Charge Density
(Coul / m3)

Anode
Dark
Space

Cathode
Dark
Space
Either
+ or -

Cathode
Glow
+

If ADS is If ADS is +

V
Anode or
voltage

Figure 1 (Top). The physical appearance of an archetypical gas discharge. (Below) Charge density,
E-field, and Voltage distributions within the tube. The bottom three plots will be discussed in parts
two and three of this paper.

a neutral atom by collision and both the original electron and the newly liberated electron
will leave the discharge together, entering the anode. At both the cathode and the anode,
then, it is electron pairs that enter and leave the discharge. In the central part of the
discharge +ions are moving toward the cathode and electrons are moving toward the
anode. Both these movements contribute to the total current in the discharge (which is
equal to the current in the external circuit). Only electrons are free to move in the external
circuit (wires). Positive ions are created at the anode and neutralized by recombination at
the cathode. They remain inside the discharge. If the electric current created by the ion
and electron flows is sufficiently high, the ionized gas (plasma) can emit visible light.
In laboratory experiments such as this, additional electrons are sometimes produced by
secondary emission from the cathode. The major, observed, physical properties of a
typical laboratory discharge are described below. These physical structures appear over a
wide range of operating conditions. A typical set of operating conditions for a laboratory
discharge might be a voltage of about 1 kV, a total current of about 0.1 A, through air or
Argon at a pressure of 0.01 psi 5 (~70 pascals). Our description of these structures starts at
the cathode and proceeds toward the anode.
Also note there is an extremely low (but not zero valued) electric field throughout the
positive column, Faraday dark space, and the negative glow region.

Cathode
In a laboratory discharge, the cathode is an electrical conductor, usually a metal, with a
secondary emission coefficient (it has the ability to emit electrons when bombarded by
incoming positive ions). Of course in cosmic plasmas, no metal electrodes are present.

Aston Dark Space


This is a thin region next to the cathode containing a layer of negative charge. It thus
contains a strong electric field. Electrons are accelerated through this space away from
the cathode. In this region stray initial electrons together with the secondary electrons
from the cathode outnumber the ions. These electrons are too low density and/or energy
to excite the plasma, so it appears dark.

Cathode Glow
This is the next structure out from the Aston dark space. Here the electrons are energetic
enough to excite the neutral atoms with which they collide. (In air, this region is usually
red due to the emissions by the excited atoms sputtered off the cathode surface, or
the positive ions moving toward the cathode.) The cathode glow has a relatively high ion
density. The axial length of the cathode glow depends on the type of gas and the pressure.
The cathode glow sometimes clings to the cathode and masks the Aston dark space.

Cathode (Crooks, Hittorf) Dark Space


This is a relatively dark region on the anode side of the cathode glow that has a
moderately strong electric field and a relatively high ion density. It thus is a positive
space charge layer. Thus, the cathode dark space, the cathode glow, and the Aston dark
space constitute an effective double layer (DL) such that most of the remainder of the
plasma experiences only low valued electric fields.
3

Negative Glow
This region is the site of the brightest intensity of the entire discharge. The negative glow
has a relatively low electric field, is long compared to the cathode glow, and is most
intense on the end near the cathode. Electrons that have been accelerated in the cathode
region to high speeds produce ionization, and slower electrons that have already had
inelastic collisions produce excitations. These slower electrons are responsible for the
negative glow. The electron number density in the negative glow discharge is typically
about 1016 electrons/m3. As these electrons slow down, energy for excitation is no longer
available and the Faraday dark space begins.

Glow Region
Faraday dark space
The electron energy is low in this region. The electron number density decreases by
recombination and diffusion to the walls, the net space charge is very low, and the axial
electric field is small.

Positive Column
This is the physically largest component of a normal discharge. The plasma is quasineutral. The electric field is weak, typically 1 V/cm (This is low considering that the
terminal to terminal applied voltage can be of the order of 1000 V.) The electric field is
just large enough to maintain a degree of ionization at its cathode end. The electron
number density is about 1015 to 1016 electrons/m3, and the electron temperature is
typically in the range of 1 to 2 eV. In air, the positive column plasma is pinkish blue. As
the length of the discharge tube is increased at constant pressure, the length of the
cathode structures remains constant, and the positive column lengthens. The positive
column is a long, uniform glow mode discharge, except when standing or moving
striations, or ionization (Alfvn) waves are triggered by a disturbance. All this, of course,
is observed in the laboratory.
In the case of the plasma surrounding the Sun, the solar corona is the positive column.
The Faraday dark space extends out from the end of the corona to the heliopause (virtual
cathode). A DL may exist between the positive column and the anode glow especially in
a cosmic plasma such as the solar wind. This DL would occur only if the applied voltage
were extremely high valued. A significant fraction of this high voltage would appear
across this DL.

Anode Region
Anode glow
This region is usually brighter than the positive column, and is not always present in
laboratory experiments. This is the boundary of the anode sheath. Anode tufting is said
to have been observed in this region, although no photographs of this phenomenon seem
to have survived.

Anode dark space


The space between the anode glow and the anode itself is the anode sheath. It is a single
layer of space charge. This layer can either be positive or negative depending on the size
of the anode relative to the current density level it is carrying. There is a stronger electric
field here than in the positive column.

Other Phenomena
Striations
Moving or standing striations are traveling waves or stationary perturbations in the
electron number density that occur in partially ionized plasmas. In their usual form,
moving striations are propagating luminous bands that appear in the positive column. In
reality many apparently homogeneous partially ionized plasmas have moving striations.
Standing striations can be easily photographed.

Abnormal Glow Discharges


In the normal glow mode, increasing current in a discharge tube leads to a very slow
decrease in voltage. As will be discussed below, the current density to the cathode
remains fairly constant. Beyond this normal glow range the current increases by covering
a greater cathode region. Once the whole surface of the cathode is covered by the
discharge, the only way the total current can increase further is to drive more current
through the cathode by applying more voltage. This is called an abnormal glow
discharge. The cathode voltage drop increases rapidly, and the dark space shrinks. Except
for being more intensely luminous, the abnormal glow discharge appears very similar to
the normal discharge. Sometimes the structures near the cathode blend into one another,
providing a more or less uniform glow. As the voltage increases, the cathode current
density also increases, ultimately heating the cathode and causing incandescence and
thermionic emission. If the cathode gets hot enough to emit electrons thermionically, the
discharge will transition into the arc mode.

2. How We Measure the Electrical Properties of a Gas Discharge


Suppose we put a gas (typically neon, argon or one of the noble gasses) into a closed
glass tube that has two electrodes inserted into it and apply a voltage across these two
terminals (exposed ends of the two electrodes). The terminal to which the higher voltage
is connected is the anode of the tube and the other terminal is the cathode. Positive
charges (as do all physical quantities) tend to move from regions of high potential energy
to regions of low potential energy. Water flows down hill is a well-known popular
statement of that fundamental idea. Voltage is a measure of the potential energy
possessed by a positive electrical charge. So positive charges will move along a path
away from a point of high voltage toward a point that is at a low voltage. Consider the
electrical circuit shown in figure 2 that contains a plasma tube.
In this circuit, there is a voltage source whose voltage value, VS , we can choose (and
vary). There is also a resistor, R, whose value we can choose (and vary). The purpose of
the resistor is to limit (control) the value of the current, I, that will go through the plasma

tube. If we travel from the lower left-hand corner of the circuit up to the upper left-hand
corner we will go through a voltage rise of Vs volts. So if Vs is a positive quantity (say
+10V) then the voltage at the upper left hand corner is ten volts greater than the voltage
at both lower corners.

Figure 2. Laboratory circuit used to measure the Volt-Ampere characteristic of a plasma. Terminals
X-X connect the external excitation circuit on the left to the plasma on the right.

The current, I, has the same value in Amperes at every point all the way around the
circuit (there are no exits from which charge can escape).
Ohms Law tells us that the voltage rise across a linear resistor (in this case moving from
the upper right-hand corner to the upper left-hand corner) is directly proportional to the
current through that resistor. So mathematically we have
VR I R
(1)
Also we notice that if the voltage at the upper left corner is +10 volts, it has to be that
value whether we get there by going from the lower left to upper left corner or if we go in
the counterclockwise direction around the loop to the right. In other words it is obvious
that, summing voltage rises,
VS V P V R
(2)
or
VS V R V P 0 ,
(3)
Demonstrating the fact that the sum of the voltage rises around any closed path in a
circuit is zero. Equation 3 might also be written
V P VS V R
(4)
Or, using (1),
V P VS I R
(5)
V P R I VS
(6)

This last equation (6) has the form of a straight line (y = mx + b) which is evident when
we plot it on a VP vs I set of axes.
Figure 3 is a graphical description of the behavior of the part of the circuit in figure 2 that
lies to the left of the two terminals shown by the two small Xs in that figure. For
example, if we raise the ohmic value of the resistor6, R, in figure 2, then, in figure 3, the
intersection 7 of the line with the horizontal axis (at I = VS / R) will move toward the left;
and the line8 will become steeper.

VOLTAGE, VP , (V)

VS

Equation of a straight line is


y = mx+b
where m = the slope and b is the y-intercept
So Vp= - R I + VS
has a slope = -R and y-intercept at VS.
Also, when Vp= 0, I = VS/R.

Slope = -R

VS/R

CURRENT, I , (A)

Figure 3. Plot of equation 6.

Varying the value of the voltage source will vary both intersections (end points of the
line). I is, of course, the value of the current leaving the top terminal, X toward the right
in figure 2. Every point on this so-called load-line represents a pair of values (VP, I )
that satisfy the requirements of the circuit to the left of terminals XX.

Plasma Voltage - Current Characteristic


The value of VP, the voltage across the plasma tube, is a highly nonlinear function of the
current, I (charge flow), down through the tube. This is shown in figure 4.
Every point on that plot represents a pair of values (VP, I) that satisfy the requirements of
the circuit to the right of terminals X X, the plasma contained within the tube. A
straight line drawn from the origin of figure 4 up to any particular point on the curve,
(VP, I), has a slope equal to VP /I which is the effective bulk resistance of the plasma
when it is operating at that point. This reminds us that the curve plotted in figure 4
represents an infinite set of single points, each of which represent a pair of numbers that
define the voltage across and the current through the plasma at any given instant. Such a
point (at which the circuit operates) is called an operating point.
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Bear in mind that the current, I, that is plotted on the horizontal axis in figure 3 is
identically the current, I, that flows in the plasma and is plotted on the horizontal axis in
figure 4. So the voltage, VP, in figures 3 and 4 is the same voltage; it is the voltage
produced by the circuit to the left of terminals, XX, and is also the voltage across the
plasma tube. Therefore figures 3 and 4 have the same identical axes and thus both figures
can be superimposed on top of one another on this one set of axes. This is shown in
figure 5.

VOLTAGE (V) or E-Field (V/m)

Dark Current Mode

Glow Mode

Townsend
Discharge

Arc Mode

D
C
Glow-to-arc
transition

H
F
Current
Saturation

F
Normal glow

G
Abnormal
glow

B
J

CURRENT (A) or CURRENT DENSITY (A/m2)

Figure 4 A typical static, plasma discharge, volt-ampere plot. It is obviously highly nonlinear. A
similar plot for a linear resistor would be a straight line, starting at the origin (point A) and rising
upward toward the right. The angle of the line would be determined by the ohmic value of the
resistor. The slope of a line from the origin to any point on the curve = Vp /I = Rp of the plasma.

Any point(s) of intersection of the load-line plot and the nonlinear volt-ampere plot of the
plasma indicates possible pairs of (VP , I) values at which the circuit might operate. Only
at such intersection points are the requirements on the simultaneous values of VP and I by
both halves of the circuit satisfied. These are called operating points.
Figures 4 and 5 are plotted with current on the horizontal axis. This is the opposite of the
standard way VI plots are made in modern electronics. The original investigators of
electric discharges in gasses (plasmas) presented their results with current or current
density plotted on the horizontal axis because it is the value of applied current density
that uniquely determines the mode of operation of the plasma, rather than the applied
voltage 9 .
Clearly, in figure 5, the two points defined by letters D and G are each possible operating
points. Which one will actually be chosen by the circuit will depend on the past history of
how the circuit has been excited, but either one is theoretically possible. Sometimes an

unpleasant surprise happens when the investigator is hoping for one operating point and
the circuit jumps to the other.

VOLTAGE (V) or E-Field (V/m)

VS

Dark Current Mode

Glow Mode

Townsend
Discharge

Arc Mode

D
C
Glow-to-arc
transition

H
F
Current
Saturation

F
Normal glow

G
Abnormal
glow

B
J

CURRENT (A) or CURRENT DENSITY (A/m2)

VS / R

Figure 5. The plot of figure 3 superimposed onto figure 4. Obviously, the value of the current density
determines in which mode the plasma will operate. Voltage across the tube has little effect.

Consider what would happen if we now maintain the source voltage, VS , constant but
increase the value of the resistance, R. The intersection of the straight load-line with the
horizontal axis would move toward the left while the load-lines intersection with the
vertical axis remains fixed. In that way the operating point might be repositioned, for
example, to point C, and this would be the only possible location at which the circuit
could operate there being only one intersection between the load-line and the plasma VI
plot for those values of VS and R.
Conversely, lowering the ohmic value of R might result in point J becoming a possible
operating point. In fact, because plasmas will attempt to lower the force on each charged
particle, point J would be the probable result. If the electrodes were not designed to
withstand a current of this magnitude, a melt-down of the tube might well occur.
By judiciously varying the VS and R values, an investigator can trace out the entire nonlinear plasma characteristic plot. (Remembering always not to select values that might
unintentionally locate an operating point in the arc range.)
If conditions within the plasma are maintained such that only one plasma cell exists
within the tube then no double layers divide the plasma into different cells. Under these
conditions the general shape of this plot is the same for both external measurements
(voltage applied across the electrodes vs. terminal current) and internal measurements (Efield strength at a point in the plasma vs. current density at that point). For this reason
both axes in figures 3 and 4 carry two labels. Of course numerical values would be
different depending on which quantities are being presented:

1. Overall quantities: VP, the terminal voltage across the tube, vs. I, the total current
(in Amperes) through the tube.
2. Point quantities: E, the electric field at a point in Volts per meter, vs. J, the current
density in Amps per square meter of cross-section of the discharge.
The electrical characteristics of the discharge such as the breakdown (sparking) voltage
at which the discharge becomes visible, the overall shape of the volt - ampere
characteristic, and the structure of the discharge (described in the previous section) all
depend on the geometry of the electrodes, the shape of the vessel, the particular gas used,
its pressure, temperature, and the electrode material. The shape and properties of the
discharge volt-ampere plot in its various ranges are discussed below. Usually three
general regions (modes) can be identified as shown in figures 4 and 5: the dark current
mode, the glow mode, and the arc mode.
Notice that no point(s) on the curves plotted in figures 4 and 5 touch the horizontal axis.
Every point in a plasma discharge requires a non-zero valued electric field strength to
maintain the discharge. A typical charge carrier will act as shown in figure 6. An average
velocity of that type of carrier will result that is proportional to the strength of the applied
E-field. Thus vAv = E where is the mobility of that type of charge carrier.

Figure 6. A constant strength electric field (force per unit charge) creates a constant acceleration.
The velocity of each carrier will increase linearly with time until it collides with another particle.
This produces an average velocity value, vAv that is proportional to the applied field.

Dark Current Mode


The region of the plot between A and E in figures 4 and 5 is termed the dark current
mode because, except for Townsend corona discharges and the breakdown itself, the
discharge remains invisible to the eye. The upper layers of Earths atmosphere are darkmode plasma. Radio frequency waves are refracted back down to the surface by this
plasma. But it normally emits no visible light.

10

A to B

In this low-current stage of the process, the electric field applied along the axis of the
discharge tube sweeps out the ions and electrons created by ionization from background
radiation. Background radiation from cosmic rays, naturally radioactive minerals, or
other sources, produces a constant and measurable degree of ionization but not enough to
make the plasma visible to the human eye. The ions and electrons drift to the electrodes
in the weak applied electric field producing a weak electric current. Increasing the
applied voltage sweeps out an increasing fraction of these ions and electrons.
B to C

If the voltage between the electrodes is increased enough, eventually, at point B, all the
available electrons and ions are being swept away, and the current saturates (does not
increase further even though an increasing voltage is applied). The value of the current,
when it saturates, depends linearly on the radiation source strength this is a property
used in some radiation counters. A charged particle that penetrates into the inter-electrode
space will cause an abrupt (transient) change in the current, I, that can be sensed by an
external ammeter.
C to D

If the voltage across the tube is increased beyond point C, the current will again rise. The
electric field is now strong enough so that the electrons initially present in the plasma can
acquire enough kinetic energy, before reaching the anode, to ionize neutral atoms. This
region of increasing current is called the Townsend discharge region.
D to E

Corona10 discharges occur in this Townsend region due to high electric field strengths
near sharp points, edges, or wires just prior to electrical breakdown (transition from dark
to glow mode). If the current level is high enough, corona discharges are actually dim
glow discharges visible to the eye. For low current levels, the entire corona is dark, as
appropriate for the dark mode. Related phenomena include the silent electrical discharge,
an inaudible form of filamentary discharge, and the brush discharge, a luminous
discharge in a non-uniform electric field where many Townsend-type discharges are
active at the same time and form streamers through the plasma. When observed at the
mastheads of sailing vessels, such visible Townsend discharges are called St. Elmos
Fire.
E

As the electric field becomes ever stronger, a liberated electron may also ionize another
neutral atom leading to an avalanche of electron and ion production. Electrical
breakdown (transition from dark to glow mode of operation) can occur. At this
breakdown (sparking) voltage, VB, the current may increase by a factor of 104 to 108,
and is usually limited only by the internal (ballast) resistance of the power supply
connected across the electrodes. If this resistance has a comparatively high ohmic
value 11 , the discharge tube cannot draw enough current to break down the gas, and the
tube will remain in the Townsend region with small corona points or brush discharges
being evident on the electrodes. If the internal resistance of the power supply is relatively
lower, then the plasma will break down and move into the normal glow discharge mode.
The breakdown (or sparking) voltage for a particular gas and electrode material depends
11

on the product of the pressure and the distance between the electrodes as expressed in
Paschens law (1889).

Paschens Law
As discussed above, in order to ionize the neutral atoms within the tube, an electron must
acquire a certain minimum energy (the ionization energy). It does this by falling through
a sufficiently large voltage drop and thus attaining a required velocity. If it collides with
anything before attaining this velocity, it will not have the required kinetic energy to
perform the ionization. So the discharge tube length (distance between electrodes) must
be larger than the mean free path (average distance between collisions) of the electrons
in the discharge. By lowering the pressure in the tube we can remove potential collision
candidates. Of course if the pressure is lowered too far, there will be nothing left to
collide with after the ionization energy has been attained. Paschens Law quantifies the
trade-off among the three determining quantities: distance between electrodes, applied
voltage, and pressure in the tube. For example, if the applied voltage is fixed, then there
is an optimum value of the product, pd, where p is the pressure and d is the distance
between electrodes.

Glow Mode
The glow discharge mode owes its name to the fact that the plasma becomes luminous.
The plasma glows because the electron energy and number density are high enough to
generate visible light by excitation collisions and recombinations. The applications of
glow discharge include TV displays, fluorescent lights, dc parallel-plate plasma reactors,
magnetron discharges used for depositing thin films, and electro-bombardment plasma
sources. The auroras observed in Earths (and other planets) polar regions are plasma in
the glow mode. So are neon advertising signs. The solar corona is a glow mode
discharge. It is essentially completely ionized.
F to G (Normal Glow Mode)

After a discontinuous transition from E to F, the plasma enters the normal glow region,
in which the voltage is a slightly decreasing function of the current. This is thus a region
of negative dynamic resistance. In this range, plasma can decrease the E-field strength at
any given point inside it by increasing the current density (using less than the full crosssection of the tube). This moves the operating point toward the right, squeezing the
plasma discharge down into filaments, and it will do so. The filaments observed in the
outer, low current density region of the solar corona are examples of this effect. The
electrode current density is independent of the total current in this mode. This means that
the plasma is in contact with only a part of the electrode surfaces at low currents in this
range. As the current density is increased from F toward G, the fraction of the cathode
occupied by the plasma increases, until plasma covers the entire cathode surface at point
G.
G to H (Abnormal Glow Mode)

In the abnormal glow range (to the right of point G), the voltage increases with
increasing current in order to force the electrode current density above its natural value to
provide the required current.

12

Hysteresis at the Glow / Dark Mode Transition

Starting at point G and reducing the value of current or current density (moving to the left
on the plot), a form of hysteresis is observed in the volt-ampere characteristic. On the
way back down, the visible glow discharge maintains itself at considerably lower currents
and current densities than at the original point F and only then, at a new point F, makes a
transition back up to the Townsend region at point D.

Arc Mode
H to K

At point H, the electrodes become sufficiently hot that, in the lab, the cathode emits
electrons thermionically. If the DC power supply has a sufficiently low internal
resistance, the discharge will undergo an abrupt glow-to-arc transition. In cosmic plasma
there is no metal cathode and so arc mode is achieved via an avalanche increase in the
total number of current carriers. Arc mode emission is characterized by copious amounts
of intense ultra-violet light as well as brilliant broad-spectrum EM radiation including
visible light. Arc mode plasma is orders of magnitude more radiant than glow-mode.
I to J

The arc regime, from I through J is one where the discharge voltage decreases steeply as
the current increases (negative dynamic resistance). This causes filaments to form in the
lower current density region of the arc mode. Natural lightning is clearly one example of
such filamentation. Negative dynamic resistance occurs until a sufficiently large current
level is achieved (point J). Above that point, the voltage increases slowly as the current
increases. In this higher current density arc mode range, the discharge is not filamented.

3. Space Plasmas vs. Laboratory Experiments


Several of the component structures observed in laboratory plasmas are in one-to-one
correspondence with observed solar and cosmic phenomena. But there are at least two
significant differences that must be recognized.
1. The single most important difference between the laboratory plasma described
above and that which surrounds the Sun is that in the laboratory, the tube
containing the plasma usually has a cylindrical shape with the anode and
cathode being almost the same size. However, the solar plasma is spherical.
This has several effects:
The vector calculus mathematics used in Maxwells equations to describe
the electric field in such plasmas gives different results depending on the
morphology (cylindrical or spherical) of the discharge. See: On the Sun's
Electric Field .
Because of the spherical geometry of the heliosphere, the current density
is much higher in the neighborhood of the Suns anode than it is at the
(virtual) cathode (the heliopause). The ratio of cathode area to anode area
is proportional to the square of the ratio of the radius of the heliopause to
the radius of the Sun: (radius of the heliosphere/radius of the Sun)2 =
(1.8x1013/4x108)2 ~2x109. So the heliospheres surface area is 2 billion
times the area of the Suns surface. Therefore, extremely relatively high

13

current density occurs at the anode. This puts the anode glow discharge
of the photosphere into the arc mode.
The Sun emits power at a rate of approximately 65-million watts/sq meter
from its photospheric surface. This is equivalent to a power output of 42
kW from each square inch of that surface. It is difficult to imagine that a
plasma discharge in anything other than arc mode could radiate 42 kW of
power from each square inch of its surface area. The light from over forty
1000-watt light bulbs radiating from a
one square inch area must come from
a continuous arc-mode plasma. Some
people may think the word arc is
synonymous with lightning bolt a
jagged, often branching, and
randomly shaped discharge. It is not.
The word arc refers only to the
mode in which a given plasma can be.
Often, continuous, steady-state plasma
is in arc mode.

Figure 7. A continuous high current density arc-mode plasma.

2. There are no metal electrodes anywhere in space and this includes the solar
plasma discharge. The cathode is a virtual one and is at a vast distance from the
anode (the body of the Sun). This is not unique. For example, the St. Elmos
Fire discharges sometimes visible at the mastheads of sailing vessels and along
power transmission cables have no real cathode. Their electric paths spread out
and end on negative charges located at remote distances at virtual cathodes. In
a thunderstorm, a cloud electrode may simply be a region of excess charge
distributed over a volume. In cosmic plasmas (including the solar wind)
because there are no material cathodes, some of the phenomena described above
such as thermionic or secondary emissions from a (metallic) cathode are
impossible and thus are not present.

Conclusion
The author hopes this relatively brief primer on the visual appearance, structure, and
electrical properties of plasma may answer some questions and/or eliminate some
confusion about this important and still emerging area of physical engineering-science.
Much of it has been gleaned from what are now historical scientific books and papers.
The empirical scientific method has three components: observation, hypothesis making,
and experimental testing. Mathematical derivations should not replace observations made
in the laboratory. But the observations discussed here seem to have faded into the
obscurity of time while mathematical derivations multiply unboundedly. There is
arguably a need to reproduce some or all of these observations in order to be able to
judge what are and what are not viable explanations for observed cosmic phenomena.
D. E. Scott

14

See: Mulder, J.G.W., Gas-Discharge Tubes, http://www.electricstuff.co.uk/ch1.pdf


A case in point: One of the most highly recommended modern texts on plasma physics is Paul M.
Bellans Fundamentals of Plasma Physics. Its index makes no mention of: glow or dark modes, Paschens
Law, Townsend discharge, anode glow, or the name Birkeland. It does contain: action integral in
Lagrangian formalism, dielectric tensor elements, Grad-Shafranov equation, Vlasov equation, Sweet-Parker
reconnection, and the Yukawa solution, (among many other similar entries). See:
http://www.amazon.com/Fundamentals-Plasma-Physics-PaulBellan/dp/0521528003/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347127180&sr=1-2fkmr0&keywords=Bellan%E2%80%99s+Fundamentals+of+Plasma+Physics.
3
See: Geissler tubes: http://www.crtsite.com/page6.html
4
See: Crookes tubes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crookes_tube
5
A bewildering variety of different units are used to describe the pressure of a contained gas. For example:
1Atm = 101,325 P = 29.92 inch/Hg = 1013 millibar = 760 torr; 1 millibar = 100 P; 1 P = 10 dyne/cm2;
1 inch/Hg = 3386 P; 1lb/in2 = 6895 P = 51.7 torr etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The SI unit is the pascal.
6
This resistor is often called the ballast resistor or just the ballast.
7
This value of current can be found by setting V = 0 in equation 6. This is equivalent to placing a short
circuit across terminals X-X in figure 2. The resulting value of current is therefore called the short-circuit
current.
8
Such a plot, which is due to all parts of the circuit except the plasma tube itself, is called a load-line.
This is because electrical engineers think of everything that is not the active device being studied as
constituting a load on that device. The nomenclature is counter-intuitive, but widely accepted.
9
See: http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Electric+Discharge+in+Gases especially figure 3.
10
This nomenclature was used historically to describe the unusual shape of this kind of discharge. It should
not be confused with the Suns corona, which is an altogether different plasma phenomenon.
11
Very high values of both VS and R result in a steeply inclined load-line approximating a current source
that enables the investigator to limit the operating point to a range that does not get outside the range D to E
in figure 4.
2

References:
Calvert, J.B., Electrical Discharges, Available: http://mysite.du.edu/~jcalvert/phys/dischg.htm#Intr
Emelus, K.G., The Conduction of Electricity Through Gases, Methuens Monographs On Physical
Subjects, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Third Ed. 1951
Scott, D.E., The Electric Sky, pp 102-103, Mikamar, Portland, OR. 2006
Scott, D.E., On the Suns Electric Field, Available: http://electric-cosmos.org/SunsEfield2013.pdf
Scott, D.E., The Sun, Available: http://electric-cosmos.org/sun.htm

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